This week’s “Did You Know,” was written by a prominent professor with long time sobriety: If we are beginners at the spiritual life, let us not argue about what name to put on what we are sensing (such as whether to call it God or Nature). The only question, at the beginner stage is; can we feel the wonder and the awe and the majesty and the sense of the infinite?
Rudolf Otto, one of the two greatest Protestant theologians in the period after the First World War, wrote a book titled, The Idea of the Holy in which he showed how the intuitive perception of what he called the holy (which he also referred to as the sacred, or the numinous) lay at the basis of all world religions. It was a kind of feeling (German Gefuhl), a kind of immediate awareness (Greek aesthesis), an intuitive knowledge (German Ahnung), which was in some way more like an aesthetic sense. It was of fundamental importance to note that it was not an intellectualized concept (German Bergriff). Otto’s work is still used as the basis of a good deal of the scholarship in comparative world religions to this day. He said the awareness of the sacred had to be added to the philosopher Kant’s list of the fundamental categories of the human understanding, because it spoke of something real which human beings have been able to sense in the world around them at all times and in all cultures, and because it referred to a specific category of perceptions which could not be explained in terms of anything simpler. Otto said that this fundamental Kantian category (the numinous) could be schematized in three different ways: as the holy in the realm of spirituality and religion, as the sublime in the realm of aesthetics (matters concerning art and beauty), and as the transcendent good in the realms of ethics.
The important thing was that Otto demonstrated that this was what all religion was about, all over the world: teaching people how to encounter the sacred. Even religions which had no concept of God, such as we see in some of the religions of Asia and in certain Native American religions, nevertheless had a well developed concept of the holy or the sacred or the numinous.
The concept of the holy was an extremely important idea in eighteenth century evangelical thought. John Wesley in particular emphasized the need to learn how to become aware of the sacred dimension of reality in his sermons on spirituality. One of his most interesting comments in this area came in his discussion in one of his sermons of the “Prayer Without Ceasing,” which Christians are supposed to pray at all times (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The nature of this prayer had been disputed within the Christian tradition. The Hesychast monks on Mount Athos in Greece, for example, had said that it was the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, only son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”). That has continued to be one of the major traditions in the Eastern Orthodox Church. John Wesley however said that it was the Prayer of Moses in the book of Exodus (33:18), a simple prayer to God which said: “I beseech you, show me your glory.” Several verses earlier (in 33:11) it said in Exodus that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Wesley said that developing this kind of God-consciousness was the goal of the spiritual life. We must learn to see God’s glory shining through in all things, and we must learn how to stand in the light of that glory and simply talk with God every day, in the way that we would talk with our best friend…